The “Uselessness” of the Liberal Arts

Monday, 09-19-2022


The author of a book on why most kids don’t need to go to college was on television explaining that “most students don't need things like liberal arts or gender studies.”

There he lost me.

You wouldn’t think so.  For in the first place, I don’t think the majority of kids need to go to college either – and I’d say so even if it were less expensive.  They aren’t interested, they don’t get it, and they are too young to benefit from the experience; fruits picked too soon don’t ripen, but only spoil.  Youth is for planting roots, getting married, and starting families.  Let them grow up a little, and then, perhaps, come back.  Some of my best students have been older, returning students.

And nobody needs gender studies.  It’s not a scholarly discipline, but an ideology.  You can get all that and save the tuition by reading Twitter.

But as to the liberal arts.

The author was assuming that the only purpose of studying something is its usefulness, in this case, for getting a job.  I’m all for getting a job, and I’m all for learning what you need to know to get one – in college, if that’s the only place you can learn it.  But the purpose of the liberal arts isn’t that they’re useful.  It’s that they’re useless.

By which I mean:  They aren’t a means to some other end, but are worthwhile in themselves.  Skill in accountancy is admirable and important, but you don’t read Dante’s Comedy to be better at accountancy.  You do it for its own sake.  It enriches your life.

Therein lies the difference between a slave and a free man.  The free man has the privilege of doing at least some things for their own sake.  The slave does nothing for its own sake.  He does everything as a means to other ends.

In fact, that’s how the liberal arts got their name.  It comes from the Latin word liber, which means “free.”  The things we do because they are civilized, worthwhile in themselves, fit uses of the powers that make us human -- those are the liberal arts. 

The things we do just to keep meat on our bones, serve our masters, escape their notice, or pump up the Gross National Product -- those, however important, are the servile arts.

Though it isn’t often recognized, even some chattel slaves can be free in the sense I have in mind, because everything we do for sheer love is free rather than servile.  The friendship of sharing in a good life is free.  Cherishing our children is free.  Worshipping for the sheer love of God is the freest of all.  My masters may be more truly enslaved without bonds than I am in bonds, because they are in bondage to their appetites.  St. Paul urges bondservants to find freedom by doing whatever they must do as though they were doing it for Christ.

Yet even Paul does not think shoveling dung is free in itself, and he tells them “if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.”

One of the blessings of modern Western life is that today, we do not have bond slavery, and those who must work for a living (that’s almost all of us) have greater scope for free pursuits too.  We can choose our own spouses, raise children without fear that they will be sold away from us, and worship God as our hearts direct.  We also have more time.  A nurse can sing in a scholum, a welder can practice contemplation, and yes, that accountant can read Dante.

One of the disappointments of modern life is that we twitter and fritter this blessing away, filling up our time with meaningless things, imagining that we are free because we fasten our own fetters.

And one of the banes of modern life is that colleges of liberal arts are among the chief fritterers.

I grant that they are industrious fritterers.  They snag big budgets, crank out publications, hoodwink donors, propagandize legions of students, pull in impressive grants, flatter those whose approval they crave, and wage endless battles for honor and preeminence – yes, they excel at the servile arts.  But they have less and less to do with the liberal arts.

That brings me back to the fellow on television.  I don’t agree with him that unless you want a job in the liberal arts, you don’t “need” the liberal arts.  That misses the point.  Their worth doesn’t lie in their usefulness; their point doesn’t lie in a job.  If we think that only the useful has value, we are slaves.

But if he were to say that fewer and fewer students who major in the liberal arts are learning about liberal pursuits – why, of course he would be right.

If there is to be a rebirth of the liberal arts, it may have to take place entirely outside of the universities.

Perhaps then there might be a rebirth of the universities.



Why Do We Always Hit a Wall?

Monday, 09-12-2022


Last week, in writing about whether an atheist can be a moral realist, I commented that although, by our own efforts, we can make some progress toward virtue, eventually we always hit a wall.  This is a very Christian view of our weakness, but many of the great moral thinkers would have rejected it.  Aristotle, for example, seems to think that only the weak and incontinent hit a wall; gentlemen like himself can do better.

I think everyone faces that wall.  But why?  There is more than one reason for it.  Allow me to explain just one of them.  But it is a big one.

We less-than-perfect people are not merely more-or-less-close approximations of perfect people.  Typically, our more-or-less good qualities and our clearly bad qualities are mutually dependent on each other.  The paradoxical result is that, as in the parable of the man possessed by a devil, expelling one vice may open the door to seven others, each worse than the first.  A few stories will show why.

Story one.  A scrupulously upright man, devoted to the true and the good, is put in power.  He uses this power, however, to persecute others in the name of virtue.  What we have in the man of my story is an out-and-out vice – self-righteousness – drawing strength from a badly flawed version of a genuine virtue -- zeal.  The apparent moral is that the man is simply not virtuous enough:  Keep the virtue but get rid of the vice, and he will be all right.  But is it that simple?  The next story raises doubts.

Story two.  A precocious child, considered peculiar by his classmates, is relentlessly ridiculed.  Fearing rejection, he unconsciously cultivates feelings of personal superiority and contempt for others as a defense.  So it goes for years.  Then, in maturity, he gains enough self-understanding to recognize contemptuous pride as a vice.  Strenuously attempting the unfamiliar virtue of humility, he meets with some success.  But his contemptuousness had always protected him.  As that fence goes down, his insecurity invades all over again; the unresolved childhood fear of rejection returns.  Fear of rejection, in turn, makes him even more uncharitable than his contemptuousness did before.  What we have here is not a vice making use of a virtue, as in the previous story, but a vice protecting what little virtue there is against other vices that are even worse.

This sort of thing operates not only at the level of the individual but also at the level of whole societies.  Permit me to add two more stories.

Story three.  As Augustine of Hippo noticed, what the Romans called virtue was really a vicious craving for glory, for the approval of others who think well of one.  This vice helped prop up the Roman republic, because the political class could win glory by performing deeds of conspicuous benefit to the commonwealth.  In this way, the vice of glory protected against other vices that were even worse.  The problem was twofold.  First, this strategy worked only because some little bit of real virtue remained; otherwise, one might pursue glory by foul means rather than fair.  Second, indulging the itch for glory gradually undermined that little bit of real virtue, so that one did use foul means, for example buying votes.  At that point the entire motivational structure begins to collapse, as the political class comes to lust not after simple glory, but after wealth and power.  The curtain fell on the republic.

Story four.  Our society has a version of the Roman strategy too, but in our case the vice that protects against still worse vices is the lust for wealth itself.  As Adam Smith noticed, the sheer desire for acquisition, as though by an invisible hand, can motivate people to benefit others, not because they love them but because that is how they earn a profit.  Just as in the Roman case, this strategy works only if there a little bit of virtue remains; otherwise, one might pursue wealth by fraud and by governmental favors rather instead of by making a better and cheaper product.  Just as in the Roman case, indulging the itch for wealth eventually undermines that little bit of virtue; today our corporations compete by gaming the system of regulations and subsidies.  And just as in the Roman case, at this point the whole motivational structure begins to collapse, and the elite classes begin to scratch far baser itches than simple desire for honest profit.

But let’s get back to individual souls.  It looks now as though the apparent moral we drew from the first story needs revision.  “Keeping the virtue but getting rid of the vice” will reliably make a person “all right” only if the vice he gets rid of is the only one he has, which is very unlikely.  If it isn't the only one, then it may be -- I venture to say that it probably is – merely a single part of a strategy for maintaining a kind of equilibrium among his out-and-out vices and his badly flawed virtues.  Upsetting the equilibrium will trigger a sort of inner rockslide at the end of which he has merely reached a new equilibrium, one which may even be worse.

If you don’t like the metaphor of rockslides, then think of a bicycle tire.  The moral virtues are like spokes.  Beginning with a perfect round, bending one spoke will soon bend all the others, too, but straightening one spoke of a crushed wheel will not simply pull the others back in true. In fact it may cause some spokes to bend even more. With damaged bicycle wheels, there are three alternatives. We can replace the wheel; we can take it apart, straighten each part separately, and put it back together; or we can leave it in one piece and straighten every part at once. With a soul, the first two alternatives are out of the question because we can neither replace it nor take it apart. The only alternative is to leave it in one piece and straighten every part at once.

If all this is true, we may draw two main conclusions.

First.  Because moral imperfection is a matter not merely of missing virtues, but of mutual dependence between out-and-out vices and badly flawed virtues, the linear, accumulative picture of moral development, in which more and more virtues are added while more and more vices are shed, is misleading.  It isn’t enough to add the former and shed the latter.  An entire dynamical system – an entire moral economy – must be replaced by another.  Even if the change takes place gradually, we are not talking about mere improvement.  We are talking about conversion.  And we are not very good at converting ourselves.

Second.  Suppose that because we disbelieve in the possibility of divine assistance, we reject the possibility of conversion.  Then we will have to “settle” for an equilibrium between our out-and-out vices and our badly flawed virtues.  But all such equilibria are structurally unstable.  As we have seen, typically they employ a leading vice to check even worse vices.  The ability of the leading vice to do this depends on a residuum of virtue, and reliance on the leading vice undermines this residuum.  So if we refuse to be converted -- to be made not a little bit better but radically better – then in the long run we are likely to become worse.

The only way to get over the wall is to be lifted over, and the only way to be lifted over is by the grace of God.


The Lower Is Not the More Solid



Can an Atheist Be a Moral Realist?

Monday, 09-05-2022



I believe morality must be founded on an objective reality human minds don’t make up, and this reality is God.  Many atheists agree, which is why they become nihilists when they stop believing in God.  However, a friend who is studying philosophy at my university insists that you can be a moral realist without God, and to my surprise, some contemporary atheistic philosophers seem to agree.  I try to give their argument justice, but honest to God I can’t see how you can be an atheist and a moral realist at the same time.  It is like eating a cake and still having it.  If naturalism is true, then aren’t we just meat bags full of water with no dignity?

My friend says I am caricaturing his position.  Am I missing something, or is he?  I don’t know how to justify my keen sense of the necessity of God for morality.

By the way, although my friend says he is a moral realist, he refuses to commit to any actual moral rules.  He says they are all merely trivially true and uninteresting, or else outright false.



Everything, not just morality, depends on God.  Without God, nothing at all would exist.  We see, though, that people who do not believe in the dependence of the universe on God may still believe that things exist, just as your friend does.  In the same way, we see that people who do not believe in the dependence of morality on God may still believe in good and evil, just as your friend says he does.  In this superficial sense, your friend is correct.  Just as someone who denies the doctrine of creation might say that the universe and its properties “just are,” so someone who denies that the uncreated good of God is the source of all created goods and their properties might say that good and evil “just are” – as, presumably, your friend does.

Nevertheless, your friend’s position fails at another level.  The first canon of the rational mind is that there are reasons for things.  Moreover there has to be a First Reason, because an infinite regress of reasons for things is no reason at all.  Ultimately, then, whatever does not have to be must depend on something that has to be.  This First Reason -- the One who does have to be, the necessary reality on whom all other reality, physical and moral, depends – is God.  To reject God, then, is in effect to say that there don’t have to be reasons for things -- that in the end, nothing has to make sense – even if your friend has not thought all the way through to this consequence of his view.  And let us be very clear:  No one who believes that things don’t have to make sense has any business saying that anything at all is true or false.  For how would he know?  Reason, for a person in his position, is no more than a special case of unreason.  And that applies to moral reasoning too.

As to your friend’s opinion that all moral rules are either merely trivially true and uninteresting, or else outright false:  This view is common among atheists, and the usual argument for it works like this.  Moral concepts such as murder are culturally variable, in the sense that cultures don’t all agree about what murder is.  Therefore, the moral rule “Do not murder” means no more than “You must not commit the sort of killing that you must not commit.”  Your friend might say that although a statement like “You must not commit the sort of killing that you must not commit” is true, it is only trivially true, because it doesn’t tell us which kinds of killing those are.

The problem with the argument is that anyone who seriously looks into the meaning of murder quickly finds that that this is not all it means.  Murder is the deliberate killing of innocent human beings -- as well as the killing of the guilty without public authority, without adequate proof of guilt, or for offenses for which the punishment would be disproportionate to the guilt of the offense.  Yes, conceptions of murder may vary slightly from place to place – of course they do!  But why?  Because “murder” has no meaning?  No, because it isn’t easy to work out the details of such things as what constitutes adequate proof of guilt – and also because there are two universals, not one.  I mean by two universals that alongside the universal prohibition of murder, there is a universal, sinful desire to fudge.  Even so, the definition I’ve given is the central tendency of all those conceptions of murder, the objective norm that they approximate, the idea on which thoughtful people converge.

So if your friend thinks “Thou shalt not murder” is only trivially true, he is mistaken.  And if he thinks the rule is meaningful but outright false – that it is all right to deliberately take innocent human life -- you are not going to convince him by philosophical arguments, because in this case his problem is not just philosophical error, but a corrupt will.

Suppose your friend accepted what I’ve been saying, and so became a non-trivial moral realist -- suppose he came to accept that the moral rules and virtues are not mere tautologies -- suppose he came to accept that the rules are meaningful and must be followed, and that the virtues are meaningful and must be practiced.  But suppose that even so, he continues to reject God.  Then he will have to try to be good without God.  Can he do it?

Even if we leave aside the deeper problem I explained earlier, that to deny the First Reason is to plunge a stiletto into the heart of all reasoning, his attempt to be good without God will face at least seven practical obstacles.

First, because he does not recognize this Supreme Good, for the sake of which all created goods exist and to which they are ordained, it will not make sense to him that although certain acts can be directed to it, others cannot.  Consequently, he will find it difficult to understand how any act can be intrinsically evil.  He may be tempted to think that for a good enough result, we may do anything.

Second, because he does not recognize Divine providence, the idea that he should do the right thing and let God take care of the consequences is likely to seem senseless to him.  It will seem to him that if there is no God, then he must play God himself.  He may find it difficult not to do evil for the sake of good.

Third, because he does not recognize the Creator of his conscience, he must regard conscience as the meaningless and purposeless result of a process that did not have him in mind.  Because it will be hard to believe that a ragtag collection of impulses and inhibitions left over from the accidents of natural selection could have anything to teach him, he will be tempted to think that the authority of conscience is an illusion.

Fourth, because he does not accept the biblical promise to believers, that “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it,” he is likely to view his moral dilemmas as inescapable, and to be inclined to the theory that “dirty hands” are logically unavoidable.

Fifth, because he does not believe in divine grace -- in the undeserved help God gives to those who are trying to follow Him -- he will be unable to avail himself of its assistance.  Presumably he will be able to do many good things and make some progress toward becoming a good person, but when he meets the wall that each of us meets -- when he finds himself doing the wrong he does not want to do, and not doing the right that he does want to do -- he will be unable to cry out to Christ for assistance.*

Sixth, because he does not believe in the supernatural virtues – those which cannot be worked up just by effort and discipline but must be infused into us by God -- he will be unable to receive them at all.  For example, though he may love his wife with natural love, he will fail in that supernatural charity which enables him to love her with the very kind of love with which God loves her.

Seventh, because only a Person can forgive sin, and he does not believe in this Person, the moral law will seem to him a harsh accuser with a heart of rock.  So when he has done wrong, as we all do, he may long to drown out the condemning voice of conscience.  He will be tempted to tell himself that the law is a fantasy, that there is nothing to be forgiven, that the solution to the problem of guilt is that there is no such thing – or that he is much better than he really is.

So for all these reasons – some logical, some psychological -- we do need God to be good.  An atheistic moral realism is logically possible only if we do not probe too deeply into the foundations of reason or into the reasonable moral life, and it cannot cure the roots of our moral fault.

* Next week:  Why Do We Always Hit a Wall?



Devices and Desires of the Heart

Monday, 08-29-2022



In the Speculum Astronomiae, one of the works attributed to Albertus Magnus, who was one of Thomas Aquinas’s teachers, Albert argues that astrology can perfect free will.  I take this to mean that it’s good to go with the flow.  My question is, at what point does an astrologer interfere with the will of God?



I’m glad to answer your question, but I’ll also address whether you’re right about going with the flow.

No one can interfere with the will of God, because God is omnipotent.  However, one can oppose the will of God, and this is sin.  One of the things God has willed is that we humans possess the power to deliberate and choose.  So even though we come under various influences, we are not pawns of fate, and must not treat ourselves as though we are.

The early astrologers believed that we are pawns of fate.  Paradoxically, though, they thought that they could somehow manipulate fate by knowing what was fated.  This view is incoherent, because if everything is fated, then any attempt to manipulate fate is itself fated.

Although I think Albertus Magnus was mistaken to believe that astrology is a true science, he was not of that poisonous sort.  In fact, his argument about the perfection of free will was intended against the vicious fatalism of the astrologers.  Rather than using the celestial bodies for fortunetelling, he hoped to use them as a source of information about the influences that operate at birth on our personal inclinations and dispositions.  The idea was that if we want to become good people, then we must be on guard against the devices and desires of our hearts.

So what did he mean by perfecting the will?  He meant resisting the temptations, and uprooting the vices, that prevent the full flowering of virtue.  This isn’t going with the flow.  It’s the very opposite of going with the flow.

As it turns out, astrology doesn’t reveal our personal dispositions and inclinations after all.  Leos aren’t fierier.  Virgos aren’t gentler.  Pisces aren’t more affectionate.

However, we don’t have to be astrologers to recognize that we have personal dispositions and inclinations – and the principle that we should understand them in order to guard against wrongdoing is a good one.



So You Want to Be a Scholar

Monday, 08-22-2022



If you have any advice at all for someone wanting to pursue a PhD and potentially become a humanities teacher or professor, I'd love to hear it.  I know there aren’t many job openings in the humanities.



Sure.  First, I’d suggest that you cultivate an entrepreneurial attitude.  What I mean by that is that you will have to adjust rapidly to new conditions, be willing to try new venues for teaching and scholarship, and be prepared for the fact that even if teaching is your first calling, it might not be how you earn your salary.  I say this not because there aren’t many job openings in the humanities – although that’s true too – but because colleges and universities are changing radically.

The present model of colleges and universities is failing, for in the first place they have forgotten or even turned against their original mission; in the second, they have picked up a whole lot of unrelated sidelines, none of which they do very well, such as universal job certification; and in the third, the public is beginning to catch on that they cost far too much, and that other institutions can usually do each of these sidelines better.  Barring root and branch reform – for which we must never give up hope -- it’s entirely possible that in the not-so-distant future, serious humanities teaching will have to migrate to other settings than colleges and universities.  So you must be sure of  your principles and calling – and although you must not give them up, in other respects you must be willing to adapt and learn new ways to communicate.

Second, since you are writing to me and I am a notorious out-of-the-closet Christian, you may be a person of faith.  If so, you should recognize that the contemporary university is unfriendly to faith.  It isn’t so much that you aren’t allowed to believe in God, as that if you do believe in God, you are expected to act, study, and teach as though He doesn’t matter to anything else -- and, in particular, that He couldn’t possibly have any objection to the contemporary woke agenda, which aims at capturing the humanities for narrow and sometimes insane political purposes.  This doesn’t mean that a person of faith can’t succeed in the contemporary university, but that in order to get a hearing, he is going to have to be try to be three times as good as the wokeists and secularists, and he must expect to be treated at times like an Enemy of the People (or at least of the Smart People).  Then again, it’s very much like that now in big corporations, in government, in unions, and in most of the professions too.  Have charity, but be tough and have courage.

Is this discouraging?  I hope not.  You can think of it as a trumpet call.  And I have a third suggestion too.  I urge you to study the humanities not just as a field of knowledge, but as a way of life in pursuit of wisdom.  If it’s just a job, you may as well sell vacuum cleaners.

Be joyful!  Do well!



May We Do Wrong to Wrongdoers?

Monday, 08-15-2022



I believe that using torture as punishment is wrong, but I have difficulty pinpointing why.  The argument I find strongest is that torture is wrong because it completely subverts the intellect and will, essentially reducing turning a human being into a nonrational animal.  This makes sense, but let's say a criminal is convicted for a ghastly crime that essentially subverted the will and reason of his victim.  Wouldn't he deserve that the same thing be done him?

Another argument is that torture must not be used for punishment because of what it does to the torturer.  But one could easily think of some contraption or machine which carried out the punishment instead of a human being.



Thanks for your letter.  There is nothing wrong with either of the two arguments against torture that you mention.  In terms of proportionality alone, it might at first appear that someone who vivisected should be vivisected, someone who raped should be raped, and so forth.  However, intrinsically evil acts cannot be justified even if they are done for the sake of some good, such as retribution.  The guiding principle, which is an axiom of both natural law and Scripture (Romans 3:8), is that we must never say “let us do evil so that good will come.”

And yes, not only would the person who committed an intrinsically evil act for the sake of retributive punishment be guilty of grave sin, he would distort himself inwardly by his deed, just like the person he is punishing.  It would make no difference whatsoever – certainly not morally, and probably not even psychologically -- if the punisher used a contraption or machine to commit the evil acts, because the agent of the punishment would be him, not the machine, even if all he had to do was turn it on and watch it work.

If this were not so, then a person who murdered by using a gun would be able to say “I’m innocent, because I didn’t kill the fellow – the gun did!”



Monday, 08-08-2022


Naïvely, the Roe Court didn't expect many abortions.  Yet legalization unleashed a gushing deluge of them.  Though Roe itself has been rescinded, it will take a lot longer to sponge from the nation’s ravaged conscience the red stain of legally slaying 63 million babes who were still in their mothers’ wombs – not to mention those who are still being slain.

Since 2015, we have been on another long march.  The Obergefell Court didn't expect much disturbance in norms and customs.  Yet endorsement of homosexual “marriage” opened the gates to a swiftly rolling juggernaut.  The violation of women’s dressing rooms, lavatories, and sports, the invasion of library and school story times by drag queens, and the administration of powerful hormones to children without even telling the parents – these things are spreading, and they are just the beginning.

Go ahead and knock down those load-bearing columns.  They don’t do anything.  Nothing will happen, don’t you see?  Everything stays up by itself.  Nothing is connected with anything else.